Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Darkness & Light

A woman watches—or dreams—herself walking in the woods under a canopy of trees. She walks with "scarcely" a sound, her skirt hem teasing the leaves in her path, leaves whose crunching sounds are themselves "almost inaudible."

Indeed, there is something altogether ghostly about this woman and the scene she inhabits—or haunts. Everything about the scene is tentative; nothing, with the possible exception of the forest itself, is real. But is the dreaming narrator really in a forest, or is that, too, only a dream? In the second sentence a canopy is mentioned; I assume it's the canopy of the forest, but it might also be the canopy of the dreaming woman's bed. Maybe it's both.

The bulk of this first section is taken up with a description of this dream-woman whose face "looks serene" and whose body "appears relaxed." Notice how even these descriptions are vague and abstract, with adjectives doing most of the heavy lifting. But adjectives aren't descriptions; they're opinions. They state the net effect, but not the causes. Meanwhile the evidence on which the opinions are based is nowhere to be seen, heard, smelled, or touched.

This lack of concreteness, conjoined with the author's tendency to hedge, subdue, or negate the few concrete details provided ("faint rustle," "no more than a whisper," "absence of wind") add up to a scene that self-destructs on reading, wavering and dissolving like smoke rings into thin air.

What do you expect from a dream? This is a dream, after all—the first section, anyway. And about dreams in literature I have very mixed feelings. Though they can successfully convey a character's psyche while—as real dreams do—offering symbols and other fodder for amateur Freudians—they can also be as boring as the dreams our lovers button-hole us with in real life. Our own dreams are of interest to us because we've lived through them; for us they're real experiences. But to others they're just dreams, and not worth investing much in.

That's usually how I feel about dreams in fiction. However supremely rendered, still, I rarely invest much in them, since I know they're just dreams. This is even more so when a story opens with a dream, in which case I'm not even invested enough in the dreamer to care what the dream might portend. And so, though poetically written, for me anyway this opening scene goes up in dreamsmoke.

As for the second "chapter" (the units are too short to pass for chapters; at any rate I wouldn't label them such), there at last we get something concrete. Since this second scene works only in contrast with the first, juxtaposing poetic dream with "hard" reality (pun intended), the two scenes should probably be merged. And the proportions should probably be reversed, with the sylvan dream image of the walking woman reduced to a sentence or two—three at the most—and the lion's share of this opening given to vulgar reality: a ratio far more in keeping with what most of us, for better or worse, experience as life.

1 comment:

  1. There have been doubts in my mind as to the opening with a dream. The dreams are relevant to the story as they tell a story also, so it's important for them to remain at other points in the novel. However, I'm glad to have my concerns about the opening confirmed and will be definitely making changes to the content of the first chapter.